History and context
People literally travel to the ends of the earth to go whale watching. During the Austral summer (late October – March), many Southern Hemisphere whales can be found taking advantage of the incredible productivity of the waters surrounding the Antarctic continent. Humpback and minke whales are present in large numbers particularly towards the end of the season, feasting on the abundance of krill. Killer whales are common and other species such as blue, fin, sei, southern right and sperm whales are also present, although less regularly observed.
Live-aboard cruises to the Antarctic afford tourists an opportunity to see whales and other wildlife in one of the most remote and awe-inspiring settings imaginable. The number of vessels and tourists visiting the Southern Ocean has increased steadily since 1991, at an average annual rate of at least 16%1. In the 2016/17 tourist season, 44,367 individuals visited the Antarctic for tourism purposes2. The number of operators offering Antarctic tours has increased from 10 in 1992/3, to 38 in 2016/17; the number of vessels from 12 to 47; and the number of cruises from 50 to 2982. An estimated 348 cruises are expected to take place in the Antarctic in the 2017/18 season2.
Cruises to the Antarctic take place on different types of vessels, ranging from small sailing or motor vessels (carrying fewer than 12 passengers) to (more commonly) larger expedition cruise ships carrying up to 500 passengers. These use smaller, motorized inflatable boats or rigid hulled landing craft to take passengers to view shore-based wildlife, or approach whales and other wildlife at sea. A few ‘cruise only’ ships carrying more than 500 passengers are not allowed to land passengers, limiting tourists to view wildlife from the more remote decks of the ship.
Most cruises depart from southern ports in South America, such as Ushuaia (Argentina), Punta Arenas (Chile) or Montevideo (Uruguay), and focus their tours on the northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. These cruises can include visits to the nearby Falkland Islands (Islas Malvinas) and South Georgia. Alternatively, a smaller number of cruises depart from Hobart, Australia or Lyttelton or Bluff, New Zealand and take tourists to the Ross Sea on the other side of the continent of Antarctica. A very small number of tours at the start or the end of the season begin in Cape Town or Port Elizabeth (South Africa. In recent years, the use of an airstrip at King George Island
has been used to eliminate 24-48 hours of travel time across the Drake Passage to and from Antarctic waters. However, flights are restricted by weather conditions and can be unreliable, wreaking havoc with tour schedules when they are not available. Cruises typically last between 10 days and 3 weeks, with the average cost in 2008 estimated to be over 6,000 USD per person. Tours usually combine a number of elements, including visits to penguin and seal and bird nesting colonies, visits to scientific field stations, hiking, and, of course, whale watching. It has been estimated that roughly 13% of time during all Antarctic cruises is dedicated to whale watching1.